Kari has seen a man die before. Old Ori, at the end of his life. And Boga, when the sickness came upon them. Boga was infirm already and the sickness brought him to the precipice of death. He coughed and hacked and spat. Palrun said he could not be left alone or he might choke on his own fluids, so turns were taken with him, to sit and listen to him wheeze, and the worst turn was between moonset and sunrise.
This turn was given to Kari. Kari sat for three nights in the dark, listening to Boga’s ragged sighs, and on the last night those sighs ran low, thin, until they were almost nothing. Kari had lit a candle and lowered it to look at Boga’s face.
The old man sighed, blinking gummy eyes into the light, and opened his mouth. Kari had thought he wanted for something, so he bent his head to listen.
“To the depths with you, Ueskilegt,” Boga said, and then he died.
They’d blamed Kari for it. Palrun spat at his feet, cursed him into the dawn. Kari had felt it unfair, but then, wasn’t it all?
That death had been long and slow, and much anticipated. But these soldiers lying in the bloody snow had been vitally alive only heartbeats before, and Kari can’t put his head around it, that they are now-dead once-alive and that it is, as always, his fault.
And the wolf whuffs in his face, nudging him with a muzzle all over ice-melt and blood. Kari shivers, colder now than he has ever been, and he turns his face away.
The wolf pushes him. Then again, hard. Kari stumbles, comes back up, but the wolf lowers its head to shove him with the flat top of its skull, making him slide on the wet ground.
“What do you want?”
The wolf rumbles in its throat, blinking those great eyes. It twists its head, snapping at his waist, but before he can flinch, it him caught by the cloth of his tunic and is tugging him along.
It wants him to go with it and will not take ‘no’ for an answer.
Kari does as it wants because he has no choice.
He can’t stop his brain from churning: those soldiers are dead because of me. He is cursed, and now at the mercy of a wolf that is more than a wolf.
The dark has turned, light coming on grey and gloomy over the village. It does not look like his village anymore. Smoke hangs over everything, choking the air, and the snow beneath his feet is churned and dark. Someone is wailing in the distance. He tastes blood in his mouth. He’s so cold it feels like he is slowly dying.
Now that the sun lingers on the cusp of the horizon, Kari can see the other wolves. They are smaller than his wolf, darting in amongst the houses like dogs looking for something to eat. He shudders. Maybe they are, at that. Maybe they’re hungry.
The wolf—the landvaitr—jerks him along and he goes, trying not to stumble on feet gone numb. He glances between the houses, and it takes him a moment to realise what he is seeing.
Two warriors stand side by side, looking down at a third who is crouched to slit the throat of a soldier on the ground. When the warrior is done they catch a hand in the soldier’s collar and begin dragging the body through the muddied snow. One of the others stoops to take up the soldier’s feet. They are all three dressed in leathers and furs, their hair braided back into tails and crests, bound with coloured thread and beads like the people of the glacier.
They are not of Kari’s village. They are not soldiers of the Jarl.
Are they bandits? Raiders? Kari cannot comprehend it. Raiders and wolves. The coincidence is unfathomable.
As he watches, a wolf runs up to nip at the hand of the third warrior. She laughs and pats the beast on the head, and the wolf lolls out its tongue like it is laughing too.
Wolves and raiders. What can it mean?
The great wolf, Kari’s wolf, makes an impatient noise, and Kari stumbles on alongside it, too bewildered to think anymore.
At the mouth of the village, where the path leads down to the pass, Kari finds the raiders have built a fire, and even now they are building it high. It stinks. Kari tries not to think about what it burns.
Alongside, the bodies of soldiers have been piled up, and now a few of the fur-and-leather-clad raiders are going through the belongings of the dead. Rummaging through their lives. Many of the soldiers are without boots, their feet small and vulnerable in the snow. Kari tries not to think about his own poor feet, nor to look at the mound of leather boots beside the fire.
There are more than a dozen raiders here, a handful of wolves weaving in and out of their paths. Not underfoot, somehow welcomed as part of the group. None of the wolves are as big as Kari’s wolf. Kari’s wolf towers over them all.
Kari’s wolf lets him go, and then pushes him along when he stops. A smaller wolf runs up to them, making a noise like a question, but the landvaitr simply rumbles at it until it bounces away. More than one of the raiders looks at Kari with interest, but it is fleeting.
Kari does not look at the bodies and wonder if Gloi is among them. He can barely think. He has no room in him for anything but ‘now’.
Later he will regret this, but in this now it is all he has.
There is a ripple amongst the warriors and wolves. A man walks through, and he is like any of them, wild and furred and hairy. But as he moves between them they all turn to him, one after the other, just to look or to nod, or to give way. He moves through them with a self-assurance Kari has never seen in his life, completely and utterly unafraid.
And he walks right up to Kari, glancing over him with interest.
“Well, Fyrsti. What is this you’ve brought me?”
The man is tall, his hair so pale it is like it’s rimed with snow. He has it braided up on his crown, a heavy crest of it running down the back of his neck like the mane of a horse. He wears leather armour, a fur tied around his neck and shoulders, but his arms are bare to the winds, thick with muscle and hairy from the elbows to the cuffs of his handwraps. The hair is red-gold, soft as a pelt. He regards Kari with eyes like frozen sky, blue chips in a flat, broad face rubbed red by the wind. An ice-walker’s face.
The swirl of blue inked over one eye confirms it. He’s come down from the glacier for this. Kari cannot be terrified when he is so curious. Why is this man here? Why are there wolves with him? Who are his warriors and what do they want?
The wind shifts and throws the man’s scent in Kari’s face, and his knees buckle.
What is that? It’s like a blow to the head. Rich and earthy, thick like pollen, meat-warm and somehow terrifying. He wants to put his nose in that scent, wants to run from it as far as he can.
The ice-walker reaches up to scuff his hand over the brow of the great wolf, but his eyes are on Kari.
“A wolfchild. Alone in this still-village. What do they call you, wolfchild?”
“Ueskilegt,” Kari says, because it’s true.
The ice-walker bares his teeth, and is it a smile or a threat? “That’s old, and cruel. Your mother never named you so.”
No. “She called me Kari.”
This time it is a smile. “For your curls.” He ruffles Kari’s hair as if they have known one another all their lives. “I’m Brynjar. You’re alone here.”
It’s nonsensical. In a village of thirty families he’s hardly alone.
Kari casts his eye over the wreckage of his village—it is not so bad as he feared. It will take work to rebuild but not so much they’ll starve out the winter. That is, if the raiders haven’t yet found the dry stores.
But there are the wolves. The dry stores won’t stay hidden for long.
When he looks back, Brynjar’s eyes are fixed on him, uncannily bright, his mouth bent with amusement. “I mean you’re a lone wolf among stills,” he clarifies, watching Kari’s face. “You know what you are, don’t you?”
Ueskilegt, he almost says again. Unwanted. A mistake.
Brynjar’s eyes narrow. “Wolfchild. Born of wolves, or maybe just one. Which one of them left you behind? Your mother or father?”
“My father.” Kari’s throat burns but he swallows his shame. “My father left when I was born.”
“A wolf, then. And your mother?”
“She took a husband.”
“So you were left out in the cold. To die.” For a moment Kari thinks the ice-walker makes mock of him, but the twist of his mouth is a rueful thing. “But you’re, what, nineteen? Twenty? You survived, wolfchild. Alone, but strong.”
Born of wolves. Kari tries on the thought for size, fits it over old hurts and gaps he has long given up pondering. A wolf. Savage and ruthless and untrustworthy. A danger to his village. Unwanted. It would explain so much.
“They didn’t leave me in the cold,” Kari says, unsure why it is important. Daggeir could have, but he did not. Kari feels he owes that much to the man who fed him, even if all Daggeir fed him were scraps and blows.
“You really don’t know.” Brynjar sounds sorry, and Kari looks up to find the man pitying him. “You’re thin, wolfchild. I should take you home with me and fatten you up.”
Go with him? The thought hits him like a wet sack of laundry, unexpected and staggering, but before Kari can do more than think it, Brynjar turns away from him to his raiders, who are dragging a body between them.
Not a body. It’s Palrun, alive and kicking. Kari ducks his head, turning away from her instinctively and (instinctively?) toward Brynjar. It strikes him how strange that is, to be more afraid of an old woman’s wicked tongue than of a raider with a great bloody wolf leaning over his shoulder.
“They say she’s the leader,” one of the raiders ventures, and Brynjar tsks like a village elder.
“Stand her on her feet, then.” When she’s been stood up, Brynjar props his hands on his hips, regarding her narrowly. “You’ve fucked up,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, Palrun spits at him. “Filth! Murderers! To the depths with you all!”
Brynjar growls in his throat, scuffing a wrist over his cheek. “Give her to the wolves,” he says, turning away, and Palrun screeches like a wild cat.
Someone has her by the hair, is dragging her through the mud as she kicks and screams, and Kari can’t stand it. “Please,” he says.
Brynjar stops. He fixes Kari with a look he cannot fathom, something deep and heavy. “You want me to spare her?”
“Please, herra,” Kari begs, because he must. “Don’t feed her to the wolves.”
“Was she kind to you?”
It’s only the truth. She was as bad as most, though not the worst of them. Still. To be eaten alive. Kari clears his throat, aware that they are all looking at him now: Brynjar; the other raiders; the great grey wolf with its eyes that see into Kari’s soul.
But. “She’s my mother’s mother. I must.”
“She hates you.” Brynjar catches Kari by the chin and forces him to look at her. Her hair has come loose of its braids, tangling around her face in white-streaked shanks, and her mouth writhes with curses. “She wishes you dead along with every last one of us.”
“All the same.”
For a moment, Brynjar says nothing. Then he pats Kari on the chest. “Loyalty. Bring her back,” he says. “On her knees this time.”
They shove Palrun down in the mud and ash, holding her there at Brynjar’s feet. And Kari’s feet, though it seems an accident.
“There was a boy you called Ueskilegt,” Brynjar says, almost cheerfully. “I know you mistreated him. But the man he has become has begged me to spare you. Show him how grateful you are.”
Palrun’s outrage is palpable. “That boy is a curse. Filth, like the rest of you.”
“And you will say, ‘Thank-you, Kari, for your mercy,’ or I will drag your villagers before you one by one and tear out their throats with my teeth until you do.”
He sounds so reasonable. He has to be bluffing, surely.
Kari looks at Brynjar in his leathers and fur, his shoulders bare to the chill wind, blood soaked into his handwraps and boots and that wolf by his side, and he knows. Brynjar isn’t bluffing.
Palrun must come to the same conclusion—she bares her teeth in a rictus but she grinds out, “Thank-you, Kari. For your mercy.”
It doesn’t feel good. It feels savage, vengeful. He has feared Palrun for so long, another rough hand in a crowd of them, and yet. She’s family. Isn’t she? Isn’t that important? Even if she has never thought so.
“You brought this upon yourselves,” Brynjar says, matter-of-fact as if he isn’t speaking nonsense. “You stole this land. You trapped wolves on the forest side. You left the carcasses for carrion eaters.”
“The wolves took children.”
“No, they didn’t. That was a human crime.” Brynjar rocks back on one heel, contemplating the dawn-kissed clouds overhead. “And then you harboured Steelheads in your midst, as if we wouldn’t know. We could have forgiven the rest, perhaps. But the stink of Steelheads, that’s something we can’t abide.”
“The Jarl’s soldiers didn’t give us a choice,” Palrun argues.
Brynjar shrugs. “You fed them. You sheltered them. We came for them. And now I find you’ve been mistreating a wolfchild. If not for that, I would have let you live.”
“You mean to kill me because of that creature?”
“His name is Kari,” Brynjar snarls, and between one blink and the next he’s down in Palrun’s face, her throat in his hand. “And no, not just you. All of you.”
He means the whole village. Kari’s heart leaps into his throat. “Herra, please!”
Brynjar stiffens, but he does not look up. “Kari,” he says softly. “Don’t you want revenge?”
“No.” Kari can see the strain in Brynjar’s arm, his muscles bunched, thumb pressed to the pulse of Palrun’s throat. If he kills her Kari will carry the guilt of it forever. He steps forward, reaching out to touch the center of Brynjar’s back.
This close his scent is heady and overwhelming, and Kari breathes it in. He feels Brynjar shudder beneath his fingers.
“Please,” he says. “Don’t.”
“I’m going to kill them all anyway,” Brynjar says, as if it is foregone. “Why do you care if she goes first?”
“Please don’t kill them.” He presses down, fingers smoothing through the fur of Brynjar’s wrap to feel his spine beneath. “Herra. Brynjar.”
Brynjar is on his feet in a heartbeat, twisting like a cat, catching Kari’s shoulders and carrying him back a step with the force of his lunge. His eyes are wide, so blue, and there’s something wild in his face, in his bare white teeth. “Kari,” he growls, and Kari thinks Brynjar means to tear out his throat instead, but all he does is press his face into the curve of Kari’s neck and breathe him in.
Oh. His scent fills Kari’s nose, his mouth, heady and thick, and Kari shudders like he’s sick, something squirming low in his gut, something shameful and wonderful.
Then Brynjar releases him, and Kari staggers back, breathing hard, his mouth open and wet. He can’t get Brynjar out of his lungs, and every breath makes something tighten in him like a knot under tension.
“And if I don’t?” It takes a heartbeat for Kari to realise the question is for him. If I don’t kill everyone in your village. Brynjar spreads his hands, like they’re dickering over a tin pot, but his breath is ragged too, his eyes bright and dangerous. “What then?”
“I’ll come with you.” The moment the words are out of his mouth they are suddenly heavy as boulders, pressing down on his chest to smother him. It’s nonsense; it’s impossible. Kari’s losing his mind, that must be it, and yet…
Brynjar smiles, more cruel this time than kind. “Oh, Kari. I was going to take you anyway.”
“But if you spare them, I’ll come willingly.” Kari wets his lip, uncertain now. He has nothing to bargain with but this, and he needs to make it good or—
Or Brynjar will slaughter everyone he’s ever known, and Kari will have to live with it.
“I’ll do anything you want,” Kari says. “Anything.”
Brynjar’s smile is sharp enough to slice flesh. “Anything?” He draws a blade, flips it, and offers up the hilt. “Will you cut her throat? To save the rest,” he says, so simply it leaves no room for misunderstanding.
One life against a dozen dozen. A test, to see what he’s made of. A cruel one, and Kari feels the prick of heat behind his eyes. Not for Palrun but for himself. It’s selfish, he thinks, when he’s not even the one who’s going to die.
“Promise me,” Kari says.
Brynjar’s grin is a feral thing. “You have my word, wolfchild.”
So Kari takes the knife. One of Brynjar’s raiders holds Palrun’s head back, a hand hard over her mouth. Her eyes are wide and wet above that hand. She tries to tear herself away and Kari must look, because if he is to kill her then she deserves that someone see. He doesn’t tell her he’s sorry, and he isn’t, not really. Not for her.
Kari holds the knife to her throat. Best to make it quick. He feels like he’s going to vomit; he will vomit; he must do this. He tightens his grip and steels himself.
But before he can draw the blade across, a hand closes on his wrist, the warmth of Brynjar curling around him, wreathing him in that scent. “No, Kari. That’s enough. This should not be your first kill.”
Kari lets him take the knife, his hands shaking now where they had not before, and relief courses through him hard enough to stagger but— “Then who will do it?”
“No-one. I’ll spare your village, and even this old bitch.” He tucks his face into Kari’s hair and inhales. “Holy Mother, you’re a find.”
When he lets go, he orders Palrun released, and for his raiders to strip the village of supplies.
Kari can’t help it. “Herra, please. You promised.”
Brynjar stares at him. “Have I not spared your village?” he says, incredulous. “What more can you ask of me?”
“If you take the food they won’t last the winter. You’ll still have killed them, only slow and merciless.”
For a moment Kari thinks Brynjar will backhand him across the face. But instead he throws back his head and laughs. “You’re brave and crazy,” he says at last. “Razaan is going to love you. Fine,” and he turns to his raiders. “Take a third of the supplies. Fair-ish,” he says, eyeballing Kari like he’s mad. “There. Happy?”
Kari breathes out, shivering. “Thank-you.”
Brynjar snorts and turns away. “Just be worth it, wolfchild.”